God Helps Those Who Can’t Help Themselves
Dangerous ideas within faith often persist because they sound and feel vaguely religious. They tend to scratch our selfish itches in subtle ways, allowing us to still feel like we’re being very Christian while serving ourselves. We don’t give them too much thought because we want them to be true. And, look, I get that no one wants to be that guy. It’s way easier to just go with the flow.
But if you’ll allow this wheel to squeak a bit, I’d like to tackle a commonly quoted phrase: “God helps those who help themselves.” It sounds somewhat respectable and religious but is actually insidious and destructive. The Bible didn’t say it, Benjamin Franklin did. It’s very American, but it’s not biblical; in fact, it’s totally antithetical to the entire Gospel.
While I don’t know that very many people would claim this explicitly as what they believe, I think it’s worth challenging because it seems like one of those things that lurks under the surface of our thoughts and pops up when it’s most convenient. I say let’s dredge the slimy beast and let it thrash around and suffocate under the scrutinous light of day.
We can probably come up with some sort of way to justify Franklin’s statement, some prudent sounding proverb, perhaps, about teaching a man to fish (Fish for Thought: rarely do those who refuse to hand out a fish follow up with a fishing lesson). But at its root, this ideal persists because it allows us to pretend the world is how we want it to be. I’d like to expound upon that with two deep reasons we like this idea.
First, it pulls on our American heartstrings. I’m not taking a stand for right- or left-leaning politics, but am rather focusing on this idealized American value of pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. We idolize the self-made man and celebrate people who have built empires out of nothing. We love Franklin’s attitude because it places the onus on us—we get to decide how our future will go. It allows us to take credit for our success and lets us blame others for their failures.
Essentially, Franklin’s idea is a cause-and-effect formula for success. If we can make a hard, fast rule that says “if we try hard God helps us succeed and if we’re lazy God abandons us to fail,” then we don’t have to answer tough questions about bad things happening to good people or worry if bad things will happen to us. It takes away any cognitive dissonance and helps make the world’s mysterious workings a little more tangible and accessible to our certainty-craving minds. If hard work means God’s help and success, then we are ultimately in control of our own destiny. Not only that, but it lets us control God. He becomes someone to be conjured, one we can force into certain self-beneficial actions by the spells and incantations we call grit. We like this phrase because it’s so much safer to take power away from God and award it to ourselves.
The second reason we like this phrase is because it gives us an excuse for helping no one but ourselves. It’s easy to walk right by a needy person when we can convince ourselves that his neediness is a direct result of his own laziness. If he got to where he is because God is waiting to help the man until the man works hard, then we owe him nothing. Or, according to this line of thought, maybe what we owe him is a stern kick in the pants to get his butt in gear and start working hard. We can, with a sigh of relief, shrug off any obligation to help less “blessed” people. It enables a cushy, self-centered faith in which we get to boast in our success while hoarding the blessings we have supposedly earned.
None of this is in line with the biblical Gospel. According to the Bible, God helps exactly those who can’t help themselves because no one can help himself. All we are is self-important, egocentric creatures who run around in circles and ruts for a handful of decades collecting cheap trinkets and shallow thrills, hoping these paltry trifles will fill the gnawing void that silently screams in our souls. Unless God intervened for us, we’d have no chance.
Romans tells us “all have sinned” (3:23). You know what “all” means in the original greek? All. It means all. Not one person could ever have earned God’s help by first helping himself. We can’t even bring ourselves to love God unless He melts the sin around our hearts by loving us first (1 John 4:19). The Gospel is the story of an infinitely just Creator doing all the work, even suffering His own wrath, to redeem us. We bring nothing to the table. God opens the way, God calls, God justifies, God glorifies (Romans 8:29,30). He is the one who acts. We just have to surrender.
To in any way live according to Ben Franklin’s phrase is to fundamentally misunderstand the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m not saying God is opposed to hard work, but He didn’t come to save those who arrogantly think they could ever work themselves into His favor (Matthew 9:11–13). God’s heart breaks for the helpless:
When [Jesus] saw the crowds, He had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Jesus came to save the sick, the broken, the humiliated, the helpless, the lost, and the hopeless. And thank God He did, because you and I both fall somewhere into that list.
Our self-love and superior view of ourselves begins to soften when we realize that no one can help himself. The only response to such a God—this unexpected One who flouts our self-deluded pretensions and corrupt power structures—is to own up to our eternal poverty and fall to our knees in trust of “Him who judges justly,” thanking Him that “He himself bore our sins in His body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By His wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:23–25).
The God of the broken, the beaten and torched,
This God, who would speak through a bastardized horse,
Works to make glorious darkest affairs.
The addicts, the homeless, those forced to be whores,
Those who can’t climb up society’s stairs,
These He will use to fling wide heaven’s doors.
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Danny Nathan grew up at Grace participating in the music and worship ministry. He’s currently a worship leader, leading people into worship in a variety of venues, including our modern worship service and student ministry gatherings. Danny is a graduate of The Ohio State University with a degree in English. In June 2016, Danny married his high school sweetheart Alli.